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Sorcery beliefs and practices in Gumine: 
a source of conflict and insecurity 

15 October 2010 




Sorcery in Papua New Guinea 3 

Profile of sorcery in Simbu Province and Gumine district 5 


Participants 7 

Study Sites 7 

Ethical Consideration 8 


Beliefs about sorcery in Simbu 8 

Identity of sorcerers 10 

Impact of Sorcery accusations 11 

Local solutions suggested by participants 14 

The role of the police and judiciary 14 

The role of the church 15 


Recommendations 16 



Oxfam International Papua New Guinea (PNG) through its peacebuilding and conflict reduction programme 
in the Highlands of PNG conducts research that informs programme and policy developments. This paper is 
an overview of research findings that were conducted as a part of the Security and Community Initiative 
Research (SACIR) project in Gumine District of the Simbu Province, working with affected people to explore 
their own situation, develop their own criteria of risk and determine local solutions to these problems. The 
aim of the study was to explore how individuals and communities perceived insecurity, and how this 
related to incidences of violence; looking at the nature of violence and conflict, common triggers and 
impacts. At all sites that were visited, sorcery was often mentioned as a trigger and source of violence and 
conflict in the community. This report will discuss those findings related to the practice of witchcraft and 
sorcery and how this relates to insecurities faced in many families and the wider community in Gumine 
District. The results are presented here in the context of recent literature on sorcery, in particular 
important studies by the Health Services with IMR (Institute of Medical Research) and the Melanesian 
Institute. It is hoped that this material will help to increase the understanding amongst Oxfam staff of the 
nature and consequences of belief in sorcery and the role of the church and judiciary. The paper concludes 
by suggesting ways in which Oxfam can work with its local partners to mitigate or reduce some of the 
harmful consequences of sorcery beliefs. 


Sorcery in Papua New Guinea 

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica (1977), sorcery and witchcraft is defined as "ritual performance 
that is thought to lead to the influencing of human or natural events by an external and impersonal 
mystical force beyond the ordinary human sphere" (cited in Zocca and Urame 2008: 10). The majority of 
Papua New Guineans do not accept natural causes as an explanation for misfortunes such as sickness, 
accidents or death - instead these are attributed to supernatural causes which we have grouped under the 
collective term of "Sorcery" 1 . Those accused of Sorcery are considered to have deliberately caused 
misfortune through use of supernatural powers; they are usually punished by death, injury, destruction of 
property or exile. Police reports show that victims have been buried alive, beheaded, choked to death, 
thrown over cliffs or into rivers or caves, starved, axed, electrocuted, suffocated with smoke, forced to 
drink petrol, stoned or shot (Amnesty International 2009). 

In Papua New Guinea terms such as the pidgin sanguma, poison and witchcraft (together with a multitude of terms 
in local languages) may be understood in different ways including: the possession of people by evil beings which take 
animal form and which confer supernatural powers on their hosts (usually referred to as sanguma or kumo in Simbu); 
forcing of a harmful object or substance into the victim so that they become sick or die, control of external powers 
intrinsic to the person of the sorcerer which enable that person to inflict sickness or death by willpower alone; and 
the ability to become invisible or to fly. Sorcery may involve contagious magic (malevolent actions on the 'leavings' of 
a person), or involve causing direct physical harm to the victim. In this paper, as in Gibbs and Wailoni (2009), we have 
decided to use the capitalized word Sorcery to cover all these, meaning the use of magical power to influence events. 


There is a perception that sorcery related attacks are increasing in the Highlands, although this may be 
partly due to a recent surge in media interest in the phenomenon 2 ; a lack of data on the past make true 
comparisons difficult. The study by the Health Services and Institute of Medical Research (IMR) suggests 
an increase in the number of sorcery-related attacks (Health Services and IMR 2004: 14). The Health 
Services conducted an inquiry into the growing number of people suspected of being sorcerers presenting 
to health services for treatment. They also note an increase in patients who believed their sickness was a 
direct result of the practice of sorcery as well as relatives of those deceased seeking a post-mortem to 
determine the cause of death. These phenomena were mostly recorded in EHP and Simbu province or 
amongst those originating from Simbu. 

Some argue that the apparent growing number of accusations of sorcery is a convenient disguise for 
premeditated murder based more on a person's dislike for another, rivalry or revenge, rather than a deep- 
rooted traditional belief of sorcery. There is also a concern that many murders may be linked to the 
prevalence of HIV, the disease being seen as the result of the practice of witchcraft and sorcery magic 
(Varolii 2010). The Health Services study attributes the increase in sorcery accusations in recent years to 
high expectations that have turned into frustration and anxiety as many have found themselves excluded 
from the benefits of development. The increase in sorcery cases may be a sign of this social stress (Health 
Services and IMR 2004: 23). Historical studies looking at European witchcraft also link this phenomenon to 
social change (Health Services and IMR 2004: 15). 

The Health Services/IMR study looks at the changes that have taken place that may have contributed to a 
change in sorcery accusations from an 'endemic' to an 'epidemic' state. Older people described changes in 
killings of suspected sorcerers in recent years; they said that in the past, killings had the following 

1. Occurred occasionally and only after careful consideration by elders that it was necessary for the 
well-being of the community, now hearsay and rumor play a much larger role in accusations; 

2. Never took place in public; 

3. The body was never displaced for fear of the spirit entering another person; 

4. No children or young people allowed to witness the killings; 

5. Killing done with arrows or spears with weapons discarded with the body after the killing. 

These characteristics no longer hold today, and the changes were said to have taken place after the 1980s. 
It has also been suggested that in the past spirits and ancestors were more often blamed for misfortune, 
but as these beliefs were suppressed by the church, accusations came to be focused instead on living 
people (Lederman in Zocca 2009). 

Another reason why sorcery must be of concern to organizations such as Oxfam is that the accused are 
often the most vulnerable in society - for example in Simbu the majority of accused in the last few years 
are women related to the deceased and aged between 40-60 years (Zocca 2009: 27) 3 . A report by Amnesty 
International (2009:22) suggests that women are six times more likely to be accused of sorcery than men). 
As we will see in this paper widows and the elderly are often targeted in Gumine. 

The media reported the deaths of 50 women in 2009 through sorcery related attacks; according to the CEDAW 2010 
PNG status report such cases have doubled in recent times (Varolii 2010). 

The Minster of Community Development, Dame Carol Kidu in a statement to a UN committee on PNG's 
progress to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) said 
data collection on the number of attacks and deaths is lacking (Varolii 2010). A call for more research on 
the issue was also made in a conference held in Madang in 2009 on 'Law on sorcery and sorcery-related 
killings' (Gumar 2009). In Simbu, one of the earliest studies was in the 1950s when anthropologist Paula 
Brown described sorcery in her book The Simbu: A Study of Change in the New Guinea Highlands (1972) as 
a powerful weapon of revenge (Brown 1972 in Zocca 2009: 18). There have been several other books and 
dissertations on sorcery in Simbu, particularly in the 1980s, but the most recent is the publication 
'Sanguma in Paradise' (2009) by the Melanesian Institute in Goroka that looks at sorcery in both Simbu 
Province many other parts of the country. 

Profile of sorcery in Simbu Province and Gumine district 

Simbu Province is made up of six districts; this study was conducted in the Gumine District situated in the 
central part of the province. The reason for the choice of this district was the presence of Oxfam's partner, 
Community Development Agency (see below). Mountainous and difficult terrain, high population density, 
and a lack of economic opportunities have led to high levels of out-migration. 

The part of the Melanesian Institute study which focuses on Simbu (Zocca 2009) looked at records kept in 
hospitals, police stations and churches which then formed the basis for interviews to be carried out. Simbu 
Province police records showed 67 Incidents relating to Sorcery from April 2000 to June 2005 in which 92 
people were accused of Sorcery and were severely injured or killed (Zocca 2009: 21). According to these 
records Gumine had the highest number of cases with 32 persons in total injured or killed in witchcraft or 
sorcery related attacks (13 men and 19 women); of these, 26 died from their injuries. The majority of these 
victims were in the 40-65 age range for both men and women. Kundiawa Hospital records supported this 
with 75% of the cases presenting for treatment of sorcery-related injuries were elderly (Zocca 2009: 23). 
Again, proportionally more females (31/48) than males presented (17/48). The police records suggest that 
Gumine is the most affected district both in terms of the number of sorcery-related incidents and the 
incidence of fatal attacks on the accused 4 . These official records show a slightly higher proportion of cases 
affecting women rather than men, but interviews suggest that the disparity is in fact much greater, most 
respondents suggesting that women bear the brunt of sorcery accusations and attacks. 


Qualitative methodologies were used, including Participatory Rural Appraisal tools and techniques which 
allowed violence and insecurity to be expressed in different ways by participants. The following diagramic 
exercises were used: 

Community Map - a graphical representation mapping the impact of insecurity on mobility. The mapping 
exercise gave participants the opportunity to examine geographical areas of insecurity in their community 

Gumine actually has the smallest population of any district in Simbu, so the high number of sorcery-related attacks 
cannot be attributed to a high population. 

and to identify areas for improvement. It was the first exercise to be done by participants, creating a 
dialogue among participants and with the research team. 

Venn Diagram - following the community mapping exercise the Venn diagram was used to explore types of 
violence, the frequency with which they occurred and their impact on the lives of men and women 
respectively. Circles representing each type of violence were drawn: the closer a circle to the community 
circle in the centre, the more frequent the type of violence represented. The size of the circles indicated 
the strength of the impact on the group concerned. The highlighted circles are the types of violence 
affecting the group undertaking the exercise (men and women separately). An example is shown in Figure 

Figure 1: Venn diagram of adult women from Dia (Kumai-Bomai LLG) 

Problem Tree- is a problem analysis of the main triggers and corresponding effects of violence. 

Peace Circle - was developed upon reflection and analysis of the problem tree for participants to form local 
solutions that were practical and useful to the community. 

Focus group discussions and in-depth interviews were 
utilized for deeper analysis of the aspects of violence 
and security that emerged through the diagramming 
techniques. By using different techniques, we were 
able to draw attention to diverse perspectives, and 
confirm findings through triangulation. The 
participatory nature of the study provided a voice to 
groups vulnerable to violence and drew attention to a 
broadened notion of security and to locally 
appropriate intervention strategies. It allowed people 

to develop their own criteria of risks and their own ideas about what appropriate interventions might look 
like. Through the exercises participants were able to identify the root causes of problems and what needed 
to be done to reduce the risk of violence. Participants stated that it helped to have people from outside 
their community facilitate and guide them through the process so that they could critically reflect on their 
own lives. 


The participants in PRA exercises formed four groups: adult men, adult women, young men and young 
women. The exercises were conducted separately with each group, providing an opportunity for all to 
voice their concerns and experiences. Each group consisted of 5-10 participants, however at times there 
were more depending on the level of motivation and interest of the community to participate. Each group 
identified a literate person who drew up the diagrams while the rest contributed ideas. 

Participants made themselves available for the 
research after notification by community 
facilitators (see below). This was later followed 
by a second briefing on the research by the 
team upon arrival in the community. 
Recruitment of participants for interviews was 
done with the help of community facilitators, 
leaders and spokes people in the community. 
Often interviews would be carried out those 
who had participated in the PRA exercises but 
were still interested to go into further detail on 
issues that concerned their community. 

Study Sites 

Oxfam supports the work of a local organisation, Community Development Agency (CDA) which has a 
geographical focus on Gumine District. In those villages where the agency has a presence, it supports 
community facilitators responsible for community mobilization and training. The research was conducted 
in eight communities, including sites both with and without a CDA presence. The study covered locations 
in all three Local Level Government (LLG) areas of the District. The communities are listed below: 

Digine LLG - Kelmakeli and Gaima (two tribal enemies): Kelmakeli is situated up the mountain and is about 
two hours walk from the main Gumine road. Kelmakeli has experienced election-related violence in 2007 
with its neighboring tribe Gaima. Gaima is near the main Gumine highway. Gaima experienced tribal 
violence with Kelmakeli during the 2007 national elections. 

Kumai-Bomai LLG (three communities with no CDA presence): Dia community is about 30km from 
Kundiawa town. It is located at a high altitude and is very cold almost throughout the day. Dia had no CDA 
community facilitator at the time if the study, however the community was motivated and well organized. 
The community also experiences tribal conflict during election periods and other issues, mostly related to 

women, may cause tribal violence from time to time. Interviews were also conducted in two neighboring 
communities: Diayuri and Gomgale. 

Gumine LLG - (three non-tribal conflict communities): The Gumine highway passes through Kewaldien, 
Bokoloma and Bokil villages. Tribal violence is rare and the communities are relatively peaceful, although 
other types of violence were identified. In Kewaledian the last tribal fight was in 2001 which only lasted 
two months. Bokolma is about ten minutes walk from Kewaledian. It is also near the Gumine highway and 
experiences tribal conflict every 15-20 years. Bokil is about 15 minutes walk up the hill from Bokolma. 
Tribal violence occurs once in a while, the last tribal fight was experienced in 2001. PRA exercises were 
conducted in Bokil whilst interviews were conducted in Kawaladien and Bokolma. 

Ethical Considerations 

Ethical consideration is very important when conducting research on insecurity and requires an extreme 
sensitivity to the context and to the needs of the participants. Many participants have been traumatized by 
many years of conflict and internal displacement. Others have suffered long term violence in marriage or 
within the family. Consent was thus sought prior to interviews being carried out and confidentiality was 
maintained and emphasized to participants throughout the interview. 

Ethical considerations also demand that the findings should be presented back to the community. 
Presentation of initial findings was duly made to each community, encouraging young people and women 
to do the presentation. These events represented an opportunity for discussion and debate on main issues 
that were identified through the research. Participants at all study sites confirmed that the data presented 
was a true impression of their community. 


Beliefs about sorcery in Simbu 

Every society has its own explanations of the world and is interested about how and why things happen the 
way they do. Simbu people like those in other parts of PNG and in the rest of Melanesia have a deep 
commitment to family relations, strong connections with the land and beliefs in the spiritual world. These 
beliefs and customs are passed through oral history: ancestral stories and myths promote this idea of a 
non-empirical world that has an influence on the physical realm. The study showed that feelings of 
insecurity were closely linked to this belief system. In the community mapping exercise, places of insecurity 
were identified by participants. People fear both the spirits of the dead and locations associated with 
them, including cemeteries and places where deaths had occurred such as battle-fields, rivers where 
people had drowned or sites of intentional killings. Mountains, thick bush or forest and rivers or creeks 
that have a particular significance or story attached to them are also places that people fear and avoid. 
The main fear was of ancestral spirits often referred to as 'masalais', which may take human form and 
which live in the mountains or bush away from human settlement. Belief in these spirits has implications 
other than simple avoidance of certain sites: at one site that was visited, most men have two wives. If the 
first wife tries to run away men may threaten to throw her clothes into the masalai stone, suggesting that 
she will eventually die wherever she is. Men take advantage of this and have more than one wife. The 


Health Services study mentions the belief that misfortunes caused by disturbing areas occupied by spirits 
or masalais can either bring good fortune or bad (Health Services and IMR 2004:17-18). 

Sorcery (usually referred to as sanguma) was one of the issues most commonly mentioned at all study 
sites. Respondents expressed fear of the practice of sorcery and of perceived sorcerers who they believe 
can directly harm themselves and their families, or bring about misfortune. The use of sorcery powers were 
also linked to disasters occurring during warfare. For example, if a woman asks questions about how guns 
are used, their provenance or purpose; and a man is subsequently killed in a fight, then his death will be 
blamed on the woman. Women therefore, refrain from asking about the ownership and use of guns. They 
keep well away from the affairs of men when it comes to tribal fights or guns, as it is seen to be men's 
affair and questions will draw suspicion upon them. 

According to Zocca (2009), in Simbu the most common form of destructive magic is known as kumo. This 
term refers to an animal form which takes possession of a person and forces him/her to do evil things. 
Despite this idea that the person practicing sorcery is possessed, they are still considered responsible for 
the evil actions. Kumo is often used interchangeably with the pidgin word sanguma, which has a broader 
meaning, and thus today kumo signifies both the intruding creatures and Sorcery in general (Zocca 2009: 
20). 'Sangumas' are accused of causing illness, killing people, causing other misfortunes, feeding on the 
flesh of dead people, feeding on human flesh, internal organs and waste, and taking the form of animals. It 
is believed that the use of these powers is most likely to affect the immediate family. Those perceived to 
possess those powers are despised and avoided. 

The phenomenon of sorcery and witchcraft is an explanation used to understand unusual events, especially 
those of a harmful nature (Health Services and IMR 2004: 15). 'Today hardly any death or sickness is 
regarded as natural or accidental by the Simbus' (Zocca 2009:32). 'Abnormal' symptoms of illness or 
sudden death, sickness and misfortune lead to suspicions of sorcery. 

"We live close to each other and when one falls ill or a leader gets sick, they immediately accuse people 
who they believe they practice sorcery. They burn their houses and attack them" (young woman, 

People reflect on anything that the victim of the sorcery attack could have done that would have brought 
on the misfortune. When there is an unexplained death in the village people start to ponder who might 
have wanted the deceased dead, they remember their movements over the past few days and with whom 
they may have come into contact. An example would be a person falling sick after taking food given by 
someone else. In Gumine, young men said they only take food from their mothers because of this 
insecurity. The accusation would be made against the person that cooked the food and gave it, usually a 
female. A possible candidate is suggested and this then becomes hear-say; rumors gain momentum and, 
with increased support from the community, they may lead to an attack. "Someone dies and then people 
will start talking and then someone will start whispering and saying well you know, it might be this person" 
(Father Phil Gibbs in McLeod 2004). Even when medical explanations are given relating to the cause of 
death, there was always the question of, 'then what caused the illness or medical condition of the 
deceased?' "A readiness to be deceived relieves people of the need to enguire further" (Health Services and 
IMR 2004: 27). 

When several people from the same family or community fall sick or die it is believed to be the work of 
sorcerers. Such deaths may require more than one sorcerer and an agreement reached about the persons 
to be killed. When people argue over land, they are attentive to the words used during the dispute. If later 
one of the men dies, then those involved in the dispute may be accused of Sorcery. Any behaviour out of 
the ordinary near the time of death can make a person a potential suspect of the death (Zocca 2009: 27). 
The main motives behind supposed acts of sorcery include an outstanding debt not yet settled; feelings of 
jealousy, envy or resentment of that person and anything that may have angered the sorcerer. Even when 
an abnormally large number of livestock or domestic animals die it may be blamed on acts of sorcery. The 
accused assert that accusations are made when people want to take over their land or possessions and 
when there are existing disagreements between the parties. 

"..for instance, if you have credit with other people and have not repaid it, there is a possibility that you 
will be attacked. It is a big problem here and has resulted in fights between families, clan" (young 
woman, Kewaledian). 

Innocent people can be accused of sorcery and killed out of jealousy or for revenge. Participants in Gumine 
acknowledged that indeed, innocent people have been blamed and killed over the death of others. Those 
that are accused of sorcery hold grudges against the people that have accused them, causing on-going 
tensions and long term rifts within communities. 

"Innocent people are being killed because of being suspected o/sanguma, while others have long lasting 
conflicts" (young man, Kelawadian). 

Identity of sorcerers 

People harbor stereotypes about who practices sorcery and is thus in the possession of an evil 
power. Although Sorcery accusations can be directed at both men and women particularly 
elderly women are usually the first to be blamed and first to be targeted when there is an 
unexplained death or misfortune that is experienced. In Gumine one women's group 
stated that "when men die they put pressure on us the women and we are the first accused". 
Respondents at all sites visited for this study said women were the first targets of sorcery 
accusations when there was a death in the village. In Gumine adult women live with a constant fear of 
being accused of sorcery. Some women mentioned that it is in fact men who practice sorcery, but manage 
to avoid accusation by blaming women. 

Other studies on Simbu found that sorcerers are often identified by their appearance and behavior. They look dirty 
and have sores on their body, they are seen at odd hours at night, they behave strangely during funerals, look for 
human waste, and they are always hungry for meat and stare at people when they are eating. The sorcerer would 
have been seen around the place or area where the incident occurred. Weak and unimportant people are more likely 
to be accused (Zocca 2009: 27). 


"Sanguma related violence affects the mothers a lot because they are the main ones who are accused 
when someone dies in the community" (adult women, Kelmakeli). 

"The accusation of practicing witchcraft always leads to problems and troubles in the community. 
Women especially the elderly are the common suspects of practicing sanguma" (adult woman, 

Acts of sorcery are usually believed to occur within families: participants shared stories of being accused 
and beaten by their own family members. One woman said that after her husband's death, she was 
blamed for his death and suffered beatings at the hands of her own sons. Another woman stated that her 
mother had been tortured and burnt by young men in their family after the death of her father. This 
pattern is confirmed in the literature, which also suggests that accusations most often occur between close 
relatives, creating disharmony, and family break-ups. The conflict and tension between the family and 
parties involved is long-lasting and often people do not see face after accusations are made and even after 
peace is brokered and some form of compensation paid for the shame. 

Impact of Sorcery accusations 

Torture, exile and murder 

During the research respondents stated that sorcery related violence or killing occurs only occasionally and 
not every time that a death occurs; it commonly follows deaths of young men because it is said that they 
have a long life ahead of them and it has been cut short. Victims are tortured and interrogated sometimes 
at gun-point to admit to the offence and to call the names of other sorcerers 6 . Accused persons said the 
only way they could put an end to the torture was by admitting to the deed. 

"When people are reluctant to say they are involved in Sanguma activities they are forced with gun to 
confess that they are one of them" (young woman, Bokil). 

This may involve testing whether the sorcerer does in fact the powers they profess to have by public 
display. For example, telling the accused to empty the contents of a can of fish without it being opened. If 
need be a witch-doctor or diviner called a 'glasman' is brought in to identify the sorcerer who caused the 
death. Calling on glasman as a way to confirm suspicions demonstrates that 'proper procedures' have been 
followed (Health Services and IMR 2004: 7). A witch-doctor may be brought in from another place: for 
example, the relatives of one deceased person in Gumine sought an explanation by talking to a 
witchdoctor in Madang, who then revealed the 'cause' of the death. 

A number of respondents reported that, following confession or 'confirmation' of the suspect's guilt, they 
are often beaten and banished from the community rather than killed and that, whilst sorcery-related 
killings in the past were very high, these have been reduced now to casting out the accused 7 . Often the 

Also recorded by Zocca (2009), who mentions that in Simbu, accusations of Sorcery may be confirmed (or refuted) 
by responses during questioning: if the accused fails to answer appropriately according to the judgment of the 
questioners, then they conclude that she is a Sorcery practitioner and they torture her or even kill her. Some 
confessions are also exacted under torture. 

It is difficult to judge whether this preference for banishment (noted in two communities) is real or increasing; Zocca 
(2009:28) notes that in Simbu, there is preference to kill the accused rather than just banishing them from the 


close relatives of the accused cannot bear the exile of their mothers or wives and leave also, resulting in 
the effective departure of entire families. At one site visited about 20 households had left in this way. The 
literature suggests that in Simbu sorcery-related displacement is a widespread phenomenon: one source 
estimates that it has caused the dislocation of 10-15% of the Simbu population 8 . The displaced fall into four 
main categories: those accused of sorcery practices who have been physically attacked and banished; 
those who were accused and have run away for fear of their lives; supporters of the accused and lastly, a 
group of (usually successful) people who have left their communities out of a fear of sorcery itself and the 
destruction that those practicing it might bring to their property and wellbeing (Zocca 2009: 29-30). 

Although banishment is certainly a common punishment meted out to those accused of sorcerery; injury 
and death are also perpetrated on the accused. 

"Sangumas are killed in different ways like thrown in the river, toilet, shot with gun and even burnt alive" 
(young man, Kelawadian). 


elated attacks recorded during this research included: 
Burning with fire and hot iron rods 
Cutting with knives 
Beating with iron rods 
Tying up and beating 
Throwing into a river 
Throwing off a cliff side (see Figure 3) 

Banished from the community their house burnt and property destroyed 
Buried alive (two elderly women and one elderly man) 

Figure 2: A cliff from which people accused of practicing sorcery are thrown 

"We kill people who are suspected of practicing 
sorcery. They usually chop them up, drown them 
in the river or even throw them off the cliff while 
still alive" (adult man, Damagire). 

"The people suspected of Sanguma have their 
hands and legs tied up and put into a bag and 
taken up to the mountain and rolled down the 
hill. We have witnessed it" (young woman, Bokil). 

community as sorcery can even be practiced from a distance, and the death itself may kill the kumo inside. Simbu. 
Police records suggest that between 2000 and 2005 42% of all sorcery-related killings in the Province occurred in 
Gumine district. One blogger reports that, according to Police records, half of all murder cases in 2008 in Simbu were 
sorcery related, but this requires verification (Malum Nalu 2009). 
8 Estimate by the Catholic bishop of Kundiawa (in Zocco 2009). 


Wider violence in the community 

In some instances the accused person's relatives retaliate with violence. These fights get bigger when the 
accused has their supporters as well, dividing families and clans. 

"If a house is closer to the accused sorcerer's house they will say you are the witchcraft and they will 
burn his house and attack him. His people nearby will come in support of the accuser and retaliate and 
the fight will get worse. This is what they do" (young woman, Bokolma). 

These conflicts have a serious impact in terms of destruction of property. In 2006 one male respondent in 
Gumine burnt down one of his brother's houses. At another site, the last tribal fight experienced was in 
2001 and was a direct result of sorcery allegations: a woman was accused of killing her own husband by his 
relatives, who attacked the woman's family, burning down houses and property. At yet another site, the 
last incident of a sorcery-related killing (in 2002) also resulted in wider violence. 

Sanguma leads to tribal fights, "especially when case is not mediated well or when people are not 
satisfied with the mediation, they argue and fight. The fight gets worse, houses are burnt and people are 
killed" (young woman, Bokolma). 

Just calling another person a 'sanguma' can lead to violence. Those accused in this way are insulted, 
causing anger and disunity among the family, clan or community. 

"I was in Goroka with my husband to do some work when he called me and my mother witch (sanguma). 
From this addressing, we had an argument which led to him compensating my mother" (adult women, 

"If a woman calls another lady a sanguma, they fight over it. Support fight especially leading to big 
fight" (young man, Gaima). 

Factors which encourage sorcery-related violence: evidence from the literature 

Many murders are committed in public so that other sorcerers are warned of the consequences of 
practicing their magic, or using their powers. These acts are condoned by the community at large - they 
encourage conformity and discourage unacceptable behavior - why then can't similar actions be carried 
out on thieves or those who commit other wrongs? 9 The justification for barbarous acts committed against 
sorcerers is that removal of the accused prevents further deaths and misfortune. One police officer in 
Simbu stated "Once they eliminate the sorcerer they feel safe because they are saving other human beings 
too. That's what they believe in" (in McLeod 2004). More than half the students in Simbu interviewed in 
the Health Services study said the removal of a witch brought relief to the community. Less than half said it 
increased fear or felt indifferent to the incident (Health Services and IMR 2004: 9). The perpetrators of the 
torture and violence are usually young men. Young male perpetrators take the lead to attack the sorcerers 
in an attempt to gain recognition and appreciation from the community (Zocca 2009: 29). The public stage 
upon which acts of torture take place against sorcerers makes it difficult for those who might possibly try 

Despite this, these acts do not necessarily deter crime (Patterson in Health Services and IMR, 2004: 15). 


to intervene (Health Services and IMR 2004: 7-8). Few take the side of the accused or try to resolve the 
problem, often through fear of association with the accused; such fears also limit the potential of better 
educated people to influence the mindset of others. 

Local solutions suggested by participants 

During the study a peace circle exercise was used to that drew on local ideas to address current issues of 
insecurity in villages. Here suggestions included the development of community laws prohibiting use of 
violence against people accused of sorcery. At one site, young men interviewed who confessed to being 
centrally involved in sorcery-related killings said they had only recently learnt about the sorcery act in the 
media and would therefore refrain from inflicting violence on people accused of sorcery - they stated that 
when someone dies there should not be any Sorcery accusations and insults. At other sites participants 
responded by saying that acts of sorcery are spiritual in nature and must be brought to the attention of 
pastors to deal with it in terms of praying and casting out that demon or evil spirit from those accused of 
practicing sorcery. Others thought it should best be left to the law enforcement authorities to deal with. 
Respondents at one site thought that the use of a witch-doctor or glasman should be made more 
legitimate in order to put groundless suspicions to rest. At two sites many thought the banishment or 
removal of those who were thought to practice sorcery out of the community was positive in that it 
constituted a less violent approach to the matter than killing or torturing the accused. 

None of the solutions suggested by participants called into question the existence of sorcery itself and 
indeed only one participant in this study seemed to think that sorcery accusations might be groundless. 
This was after he himself had been accused of sorcery. Now he tried to prevent other clan members from 
making accusations and in doing so relates misfortune, death and sickness to natural causes. 

The role of the police and judiciary 

Local enforcement agencies, although aware of the enormity of the problem are not able to intervene. A 
police officer in Kundiawa confirmed that it is difficult to intervene during an attack as a handful of 
policemen cannot control a large mob of people who are determined to 'put right what is wrong' 10 . Most 
cases involving sorcery murders are never reported and there is little cooperation in investigations carried 
out to prosecute those implicated in the death. Other Government officials including Ward Councilors may 
be better able to intervene. In May 2009 a fight would have erupted after the deaths of two children was 
blamed upon two women and a man if it had not been for the local counselor who was able to respond 
and stopped the conflict from escalating. 

As mentioned above, there was some awareness of the Sorcery Act amongst respondents, but the stated 
aim of the act is to 'to prevent and punish evil practices of sorcery and other similar evil practices'. Thus the 
law explicitly acknowledges the 'existence' of sorcery and criminalizes those who practice it. Although, as 
in any western-inspired court system proof is required, all parties concerned (including the court 
magistrates) believe in sorcery, the 'proof provided by a diviner may be sufficient to send the accused to 
prison (Longgar 2009). Use of the court system and sorcery act may however prevent summary executions 
and lynching. 

Comment made during visit of the UN rapporteur to PNG (at a meeting in Kundiawa attended by the author). 


The Sorcery Act does have the merit of also criminalizing the torturers and killers of accused sorcerers. It is 
stated in the preamble that there 7s a clanger that any law that deals fully with sorcery may encourage 
some evil -intentioned people to make baseless or merely spiteful or malicious accusations that their 
enemies are sorcerers solely to get them into trouble with other people, and this is a thing that the law 
should prevent . But in reality penalties and provisions outlines in the Act focus mostly on the sorcerer as 
perpetrator, and do not adequately cater for instances in which the alleged sorcerer is the victim which 
presumably should be considered under legal charges of assault, manslaughter or murder. Zocca (2009:23) 
reports that of the 67 Sorcery related incidents in Simbu recorded by the police between 2000 and 2005 
(including 92 persons dead or injured) only six affidavits were produced regarding killers of suspected 
witches and only two people were eventually sentenced. 

On a national level the PNG Government had little to say when asked about what it was doing to stop the 
murders of women accused of Sorcery when questioned by a UN inspection on women's rights in August 
2010 in New York (Varolii 2010). In a visit by the UN Special Rapporteur to PNG (including Simbu) it was 
stated that there was failure on the state to prevent and investigate sorcery accusations (Amnesty 
International 2010: 7). 

The role of the church 

During this study, adult men in Gumine mentioned that church workers try to save people's lives and 
prevent them from becoming victims of sorcery, by speaking out against people practicing sorcery and 
driving fear into people (sorcerers) who practice such things. This suggests then that, for the church it is 
not the accusers that are the problem, but those accused of sorcery. On the other hand it may have a 
moderating role: 

"Some religious people say it (sickness) is the Lords will but those who do not go to church captures 
suspects and ask them guestions. If they believe they are Sanguma they throw them off the cliff" 
(young woman, Bokil). 

According to Zocca (2009), the approach of the catholic church in Simbu, lead by the Bishop Henk te 
Maarssen has been countering the spread of witch hunts through an 8-point pastoral approach including 
encouragement of the consideration of natural causes after a death, teaching about the causes of sickness, 
meetings and courses on witchcraft, giving shelter to the accused, reporting to the police, and visits to 
families of both accusers and accused. The diocese of Kundiawa has the policy of excluding from the 
sacraments those accusing others of sorcery. However despite this position, the majority of Catholic 
Church leaders believe that efforts must focus on stopping witches from continuing their evil practices. 
Others stress attacking people's fear of witchcraft by convincing the faithful to rely on God's superior 
power. In the case of other denominations the great majority of leaders now share fully in the beliefs of 
their people - they therefore subscribe to the belief that sorcerers are in possession of an evil power which 
enables them to kill someone, normally within blood relatives. The presentation of the Lutheran church at 
the 'Sanguma in Paradise' seminar similarly reveals that for the district president of that church, the 
'victims' are those who have been 'bewitched' (Zocca 2009). 



A quotation from Zocco (2009) summarizes the impact of Sorcery in Simbu province: 

"The fact that, in their majority, the accused and killed people in Simbu are elderly women or people of 
low position in society is already a sign that something terribly wrong is going on in that society". 

Perhaps the most terrible thing about such accusations is that, based on suspicion and hearsay, they 
cannot be refuted by the accused. The usual instruments of criminal justice such as material evidence and 
testimonials of witnesses cannot be brought to bear. 

The community, so often a support mechanism, is the main perpetrator of this violence. Barbaric acts 
sanctioned by the community are a reflection of the lack of awareness and understanding of two things: 

• People do not understand or believe in the natural causes behind misfortune and thus attribute it 
to sorcery, seeking to pin the blame on an individual. 

• The 'evidence' used to implicate people in the practice of sorcery should be invalid in any legal 
court, and yet is seen to be legitimate enough to justify extra-judicial killing, maiming and exile of 
large numbers of people. 

Accusations and fear of association with the accused are the crux of the problem. McLeod (2004) raises a 
crucial issue with regards to any legal attempt to deal with sorcery attacks: 'prosecuting acts of violence is 
possible, but how do you outlaw a genuine belief? 1 


Education: The first and most important recommendation is to attack beliefs in Sorcery through the 
education system, stressing instead an understanding of the real factors behind sickness and death. 
Stressing the negative impacts of sorcery accusations on households, clans and communities in terms of 
conflict, fear and suspicion can be done through plays and drama. There is a perception that sorcery beliefs 
are part of the unique cultural heritage of Melanesia. Therefore it is important to stress that similar beliefs 
exist, or have existed in the past, almost everywhere in the world, often with equally horrific 
consequences. In Melanesia itself, beliefs have evolved over time and have perhaps not always been as 
damaging as they are today. 

Legal action: Although fear in sorcery overrides the fear of breaking the formal law, in the event that it is 
believed that an act of sorcery has been made, parties concerned and the community should be 
encouraged to take the matter to the appropriate courts to be settled under the Sorcery Act. Despite its 
imperfections, this would at least avoid extra judicial killings and other forms of punishment without trial. 

Reform of the sorcery act: The 1971 Sorcery Act presupposes the existence of sorcery by criminalizing 
sorcerers as well as their torturers and killers; Zocca (2009) suggests that the law might be more effective if 
it criminalized accusations of sorcery instead. There is also the question of diviners and those community 
members whose support and approval make so many of the killings possible. Allegations and attacks 


specifically aimed at female victims, highlights the need for the PNG Government to take action in terms of 
its obligation under the CEDAW convention. 

Next steps for Oxfam: 

1. A partner workshop could be held covering the causes and consequences of sorcery beliefs, the 
sorcery act and a comparison of different approaches to dealing with sorcery accusations. Staff at 
the Melanesian Institute, some of whom are from Simbu themselves, have conducted workshops 
on sorcery for church workers and could also be good facilitators of such events. The Institute is 
putting together a book for facilitators which covers all the necessary topics and could be a useful 
tool both directly for a partner workshop and for facilitators in communities. 

2. In communities, partnership with the church could be an effective way of strengthening the impact 
that Oxfam's partners can have on reduction of sorcery-related violence. The material in Zocca 
(2009) suggests that the most progressive individuals are likely to belong to the Catholic Church 
rather than the Pentecostal, Evangelical or Lutheran churches. The Bishop of Kundiawa in 
particular may be a good point of contact when identifying the individuals concerned as he has 
campaigned against sorcery accusation for decades. 

3. Oxfam should facilitate KWP to build networks with sympathetic church leaders who are able to 
identify and refer cases of sorcery to them: KWP could make victims of sorcery accusations one of 
their primary targets as clients and put in place a support program which goes beyond counseling 
to provide education, outreach and support for the displaced. 

4. Oxfam needs to consider whether there is much that can be done at the national level in terms of 
advocacy. Whilst reform of the sorcery act and better protection for those accused are essential, it 
is not certain that Oxfam has channels through which these goals might be achieved. Recent 
research has received widespread publicity, helped by a surge in media interest, although this 
interest is not always to the benefit of the accused. The Melanesian Institute is currently working 
together with the government's legal advisors on the sorcery act and has provided them with 
recommendations for reform. 

5. In terms of research, the large and recent studies by the Health Services and IMR and the 
Melanesian Institute discussed in this report, suggest that further research into sorcery in general 
is not needed; it will be important however for Oxfam to better understand the role and influence 
of the church in the rural areas in which it works in order to initiate dialogue with these actors at 
the community level. It would also be useful to know what is likely to happen to those accused of 
sorcery who are actually taken to court: for example what types of 'evidence' are accepted by 
courts in Gumine during sorcery trials and what proportion of those accused are actually charged 
or condemned for under the sorcery act itself. 



Amnesty International (2009). "PNG must act on sorcery killings" 10 July 2009, Amnesty International 

Gibbs P. and Wailoni J. (2009). Sorcery and a Christian Response in the East Sepik. In: Sanguma in Paradise: 
Sorcery, Witchcraft and Christianity in Papua New Guinea, Point No. 33, ed. Zocca, Franco. Melanesian 
Institute for Pastoral and Socio-Economic Services Inc. 

Gumar, P. (2009) Call for review of Sorcery Act, Malum Nalu 02 July 2009. 

Health Services and Institute of Medical Research (2004). Final Report into the study of Sanguma in the 
Eastern Highlands and Simbu Provinces. Health Services and Institute of Medical Research. 

Longgar W. (2009). "Sorcery and Christianity in the Gazelle Peninsula" in Sanguma in Paradise. Sorcery, 
Witchcraft and Christianity in Papua New Guinea, Point No. 33, ed. Zocca, Franco. Melanesian Institute for 
Pastoral and Socio-Economic Services Inc. 

McLeod, S. (2004). "Papua New Guinea - Sorcery" June 01 2004. Foreign Correspondent Australian 
Broadcasting Commission, 

Paclii. (1998) Papua New Guinea Consolidated Legislation, Sorcery Act 1971. University of the South Pacific, act/sa!971117 

Per, Z. (2009) "Sorcery Act lacks bite: Law agencies", Malum Nalu 02 February 2009. 

Rambo, K. and Brown, P. (1996). "Chimbu" Encyclopedia of World Cultures, 11 April 2010 

Varolii, R. (2010). Papua New Guinea Apologizes for CEDAW Record, Women's eNews, 2 August 2010 


Zocca, F. (2009). Witchcraft and Christianity in Simbu Province. In: Sanguma in Paradise. Sorcery, 
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Zocca, F and Urame, J. (2008). Sorcery, Witchcraft and Christianity in Melanesia. Melanesian Mission 
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